This blog was written by SACE’s Communications Intern, Kailie Melchior. It is the third post in a series that interviews former SACE employees or partners and highlights where they are now in their careers. To follow this series and read other interviews, click here.
What was your position at SACE, and what did that entail?
I was a policy analyst and research attorney. When Steve hired me he asked what title I would like to have, so I’m pretty confident that I was the first “policy analyst and research attorney” in SACE history!
I had the opportunity to work on a number of different projects, but the vast majority of my responsibility was to launch and run the coal plant retirement campaign. For years Steve had been thinking about the age and vulnerability of the TVA coal fleet, so when I came aboard I started to really dig in to that. I looked at the technical, economic, and environmental issues that could help us prioritize plants for retirement. That meant looking at the plants that were least valuable to TVA, but also thinking about which had the most legal vulnerability from, for example, environmental violations like irresponsible coal ash disposal. We combined that analysis with legal, grassroots, and direct negotiating campaigns, and we were very lucky that our efforts had a big impact on TVA’s Clean Air Act Settlement in April 2014. That settlement called for retirement of a significant portion of the coal fleet, and mimicked the case that we had been making for which plants should retire. After getting a hang of the process in the TVA territory, we carried out similar efforts in the rest of the Southeast, and just as I was leaving we began a particularly interesting and diverse collaborative campaign in Alabama.
What is your current position, and what do you work on?
I am on the faculty at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. When I originally left SACE, I came to Yale to run the Yale Center for Environmental Policy. That organization is basically a small non-profit that integrates students and faculty to produce cutting-edge research, outreach, and educational opportunities. It also involved managing all aspects of the center, from hiring and firing to budgeting and fundraising. I prefer to focus more on substance and teaching, so I had the opportunity to move to a faculty position, which is what I am doing now.
In my current position, I teach a class and run an experiential program called the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic. The Clinic has two parts. The first part is a traditional seminar in which we have lectures and guest speakers who teach the students about interdisciplinary environmental advocacy. The class includes law students, public health students, some undergraduates, and a lot of graduate students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Those students are all studying environmental issues, but they have a huge range of expertise, including sciences, economics, remote sensing, policy, communications, GIS, and much more. So we teach a class that prepares students to work in the real world of environmental policy, in a place like SACE, where you have a huge range of expertise all coming together to solve environmental problems. The second part of the class is an experiential component. We put together student teams and those teams work with client organizations to complete different kinds of research or legal projects. We have had students draft legal briefs, congressional testimony, model legislation, and very traditional policy material of that nature. But we have also had students develop outreach campaigns, technical analysis, mapping, or scientific literature reviews. We’ve even had teams work with SACE on energy efficiency and wind energy campaigns.
What do the next five years hold for environmental policy?
The next five years will continue to be slow for transformational environmental policy change, but I’m optimistic that we will continue making important marginal shifts both in the policy field and in the economics and technology of climate change and clean energy. With the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Agreement as foundations, we can see a slow emergence of both enforceable climate policy and symbolic gestures, both of which are important in a crisis that is pushing not only for clever and effective solutions, but for dramatic changes to the deeply, deeply embedded status quo. The political odds are in favor of a new presidential administration that will continue the gains that the current administration has made. I also think we will continue to see renewables taking market share away from dirty fossil fuels. But I am adamant that climate change is not something that will be solved by market mechanisms alone. It will require personal habits and government policy to change—the latter more dramatically than the former as long as we move at a quick enough pace.
I do think, however, that the U.S. has failed to continue pushing for improvement in other environmental spaces, outside of climate change and clean energy. We have a broken food system that has consequences for human health, justice, and the environment (and also climate, of course). We need to tackle these issues sooner rather than later. The same is true with ecosystem and species conservation. Species are still disappearing from earth, forever, at a quickening pace as their ecosystems are destroyed for human development. We have incredible laws to protect our air and water, and they’ve worked, despite their shortcomings, better than many believe. We have no federal law to address the food system in the same effective and direct way. We do have a strong and comprehensive Endangered Species Act to address extinctions, but there is less public focus on the tragedy of extinction, and that has led to lax implementation of the Endangered Species Act. So to have more success in this space, we need to focus more on instilling and amplifying the many values that are embedded in the survival of other species.
How have you integrated energy savings into your everyday life?
As soon as my wife and I moved to New Haven, we purchased a hybrid car, which we plan to upgrade to an all electric vehicle when we need a replacement. In New Haven a relatively low portion of our electricity comes from coal, so it really is important here. We also went from a two-car to a one-car family. (That’s a little easier to do in a Northeastern city than in Knoxville!) We bought a house only 1 mile from work so we can walk nearly every day. We also had an energy audit first thing when we moved into the new house. We installed a two-zone heating and cooling system so we only need to heat or cool the rooms we’re using, not the entire house.
What is your favorite energy savings tip?
Walk or bike! And if you can’t, urge your city or county to make walking, biking, and public transit more realistic.